Diagnosed with Cervical Myelopathy

Spinal cord compressions

The last three months have been pretty devastating. The best way to describe it – this morning I had some downtime from work so I took an hour to go through and update this blog’s theme and do some maintenance. I noticed I had some draft post topics queued up, with titles like these:

All optimistic, inspirational. A few months ago, while playing pickleball, I felt soreness in my upper back and shoulder. After a week of it not getting better I self-diagnosed it as the pesky pinched nerve in my neck that had reared its ugly head every year or so for the past two decades of my life. It always went away after two weeks or so. But not this time – it stuck around. At about the third week mark, it was recommended I try this local chiropractor that has a glowing reputation. I have always been anti-chiropractor, accupuncture, voodoo, etc. Against my better judgment, I thought to myself, “Can’t really hurt. I’ll go for a couple of weeks and, if nothing else, get some free stretching out of it.”

Big mistake. While at first the guy seemed like he might know what he’s doing, in the end he either made things worse, or at the very least I dodged a major bullet in that he only manipulated my neck a couple of times… After multiple visits spanning a three or four weeks with him, my arm started getting painful to the point where, at the end of my second to last schedule appointment with him, he said if it’s not improved by next week he would refer me to a sports medicine doctor. I immediately canceled the last appointment with him and scheduled one with the sports medicine doctor myself. Something was wrong, and I knew it.

The sports med doc put me on prednisone tablets. Those didn’t work. And the pain in my arm increased. She then recommended an epidural steroid injection, but this required an MRI. My claustrophobia forced me to find an “open, upright” MRI place in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey. A couple of days later the sports med doctor called.

“Your MRI is showing severe issues that will require immediate surgery. I don’t know how you’ve been able to work all this time. Do you have short-term disability benefit through work? Get your ducks in a row and get that started first thing tomorrow while I get you an appointment with a surgeon asap.”

Sports Medicine Doctor

I was devastated. She was light on details of exactly what was wrong. Or maybe she did say it and I was in such shock that I didn’t process what she was saying.

Two days later I was in a spine surgeon’s examination room at Penn. Before the exam, the nurse had me walk down the hallway to get a quick set of x-rays. I distinctly recall walking down that hall and noticing one of the health professionals look up from her computer monitor and look at me with what I interpreted as a strange sense of confusion. But I didn’t pay any mind at the time.

A few minutes later I’m back in the exam room. The confused lady, who turned out to be the Physician’s Assistant to the spine surgeon, comes in. She performs some physical tests and then gets to the point and doesn’t mince words: my spine is compressed, I am at risk for paralysis, and the surgeon would be in shortly.

The surgeon comes in and we spend the next hour plus discussing the situation. Thankfully my wife was there with me to listen, ask questions, and take notes.

I’ll write more about this in a later post, but the diagnosis:

The first two do not necessitate surgery by themselves, so long as the pain is tolerable. The third is a major concern. At that time, surgery was not an option, but I had “months, not years” to get it done.

The surgeon said I am very unique in that my MRI shows someone who should be in much worse physical shape, showing much worse symptoms. Then they saw me and they were surprised. I have minor symptoms that are only found via testing, specifically, hyperreflexia and minor balance issue. But due to the pain from the radiculopathy, it’s best to just do the surgery and get this taken care of. He recommended a “hybrid” fusion plus disc replacement surgery that, I later found, is quite uncommon and two subsequent surgeons assessed as either “unheard of” or “neither I nor any of my colleagues would EVER do that.”

At the time, I had complete confidence in this surgeon. And, probably against better judgment, still have a good amount of confidence in him. That didn’t stop me from getting two additional opinions, and I’m also waiting to get two more.

After leaving the initial consult, things were steady for a few days. Then, all of a sudden, I woke up one evening with severe arm pain. So bad that I couldn’t sleep. The nerve pain radiating down my arm was extreme.

More to come. This needs a part two, obviously.